During the Civil War, 88 African-Americans, most of them slaves, worshipped at First Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.
In 1866, one year after the war ended, First Baptist granted the emancipated parishioners letters of dismissal and Zion Baptist Church was born in April 1866. The congregants met at a brush arbor and a wooden structure before building a brick church in 1888.
Today, Old Zion Baptist Church is a museum, and the large complex across Lemon Street serves as the worship center.
A sign in front of the current sanctuary reads, “Founded by former slaves in 1866.”
“That part means a lot,” longtime church member Louis Walker says. “It goes all the way back -- to your beginnings.”
The two congregations acknowledge their shared past.
Walker (below), 67, provides tours of the museum, which includes a history of African-American educational institutions, the church and its leaders and members. Original pews and musical instruments surround the massive wooden pulpit.
The church, old and new, imbues a message of struggle, perseverance, triumph and achievement.
A recent report recommending ways to increase African-American visitation at nearby Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (KEMO) suggests incorporating Zion Baptist’s history as a means of providing more culturally relevant material.
• (Read Part 1 of study and report)
The report also recommends a more comprehensive presentation on slavery and the role of U.S. Colored Troops. Black soldiers, by the end of the Civil War, comprised about 10 percent of the Union’s fighting force.
“We seem to glance over the soldier’s story,” said Brad Quinlin, a local historian and park volunteer. “We need to realize what courage it took for these men to enlist.”
The park, in a cooperative agreement with the Center for Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University, recently produced the report on African-American attitudes toward the Civil War.
Entitled, “The War of Jubilee: Tell Our Story and We will Come,” the effort stems from focus groups held last year with nearly 60 members of organizations that have primarily African-American membership.
Because the Visitor Center won’t likely be expanded any time soon and funding is limited, the park is pinpointing certain strategies, according to Superintendent Stanley C. Bond.
A video shown to visitors is being redone to tell more of the African-American story, he said.
The park is awaiting congressional action so that it can restore the nearby Wallis House (left), used as headquarters by Gen. O.O. Howard.
Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, D.C., was named for the white officer, founder of the university and commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau.
Bond hopes the Wallis House can house an expanded exhibit on African-American soldiers and civilians.
The park is making more use of social media, including Twitter, and is working on a cell phone tour pinpointing six areas within the June 1864 battlefield, Bond said.
“What would draw me occasionally is a genuine effort to tell a true story,” says Deane Bonner, president of the Cobb County branch of the NAACP.
Among the report’s recommendations, which are being studied by Bond, to make the park more relevant:
-- Explain the role of African-American slaves in the South, what a typical day was like and provide narratives
-- Provide context for the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops and Sailors. Put on battle re-enactments or living histories that include their stories
-- Develop a biography of William H. “Ten Cent Bill” Yopp, the only African-American Confederate veteran buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Marietta
-- Include storytelling. For example, have two brothers discuss why they joined different sides; or an enslaved and free woman talk about what the Civil War meant to them
-- Implement interactive kiosks rather than traditional textual references on markers
-- Prepare curriculum materials for public school and home school educators
-- Provide public dialogue forums and oral histories with African-American civic and religious organizations
-- Employ local hip hop artists to create a Civil War modern jingle and perform it at KEMO
-- Invite African-American fraternities and sororities to partner with KEMO on marketing strategies and support
-- Purchase television and newspaper ads in African-American publications
African-Americans, as slaves, helped build the massive Confederate defenses at Kennesaw. Others served as cooks and teamsters for the Union army or occupied and guarded the battlefield.
“We have to be relevant to all Americans,” Bond (below) says of the exhibits and interpretive programs.
From Feb. 26 to March 28, the Visitor Center will host the Gilder Lehrman traveling exhibit "Free At Last: A History of the Abolition of Slavery in America."
The park and the Kennesaw center on March 25-26 host their annual joint symposium. This year’s theme, “Civil War to Civil Rights” is intended provide new interpretations of the conflict.
Members of the focus groups were appreciative of the opportunity to provide input to KEMO, which is sharing its findings with other federal Civil War sites.
“People are excited the Park Service is moving in the right direction,” says Hermina Glass-Avery, associate director of the Kennesaw University center and author of the report.
What’s perhaps new about this initiative is finding a way to tie in a battlefield park with the lives of people in the surrounding communities.
The Cobb NAACP used to meet at Zion Baptist Church, which has grown to more than 1,300 members. “It has always had a significant role in civil rights in Cobb County,” Bonner says of the church.
Zion occasionally has programs with predominantly white churches, said Walker, adding churches could be part of the park’s marketing efforts.
On Feb. 13, Zion hosted the third “Celebration of the Negro Spiritual,” an afternoon concert (right) featuring a racially and ethnically diverse mass choir and performers.
One of the songs performed was “No More Auction Block.”
“No more auction block for me. Many thousands gone,” is the refrain in the poignant song about human bondage.
But the celebration ended with a sign of unity many hope the sesquicentennial of the Civil War will engender.
Worshippers of all colors joined hands and sang the immortal words of one of the most well-known spirituals.
“We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day”